Fields: says team is loose
COLUMBUS - When you watch a baseball team play every day for a couple of weeks, you learn a few things about them.
Here are four things I've learned about this year's Mud Hens after watching them push for the International League's West Division title:
Experience is important. Based on raw numbers, the Louisville Bats seemed to be the favorite to claim the IL West Division crown this year.
The average age of the players on the Bats' roster is 28.1 years, compared with Toledo's average age of 25.8 years. What's more, Louisville has 11 players over the age of 30, while Toledo has only three - Pat Ahearne, Craig Wilson and Ryan Jackson - as well as 12 players 25 or younger.
And playoff experience? The Bats have six players who have seen action in major-league playoff games, while the Hens have none. Three members of last season's IL champs - Raul Gonzalez, Marty Malloy and Chris Sexton - were among 11 Bats with Triple-A post-season experience, more than double the five Hens who have seen action in a Triple-A playoff game.
On Aug. 14 the younger Mud Hens rode into Louisville in first place by 11/2 games. Three poorly played contests later, the Hens limped out of town 11/2 games behind the Bats following a three-game sweep.
What's worse, that three-game dusting led to a seven-game losing skid that put the Hens 41/2 back of the Bats.
“We were tight, and for whatever reason our guys felt the pressure to keep that lead,” said Hens manager Bruce Fields.
Experience isn't everything when a team has fast learners. So how did the Hens bounce back? The easy answer is that Toledo won six in a row and seven of eight after that losing streak. Even more important was a pair of wins in three games at Louisville, a place where the Hens were winless before last week.
But Fields said the real impetus behind the Hens' comeback was the way his players learned to handle the pressure of a playoff race.
“Once our guys got off the schneid they started to relax,” he said. “Now we have a different mentality: this team is loose. It comes ready to play, and they're not tight any more.”
The Hens' secret weapons are their speed and bullpen. Toledo's team speed and its bullpen made the difference in its big series at Louisville last week.
First, the speed. Twice in Thursday's crucial win over the Bats the Mud Hens used their speed to scratch out runs where another team might not. In the third inning Andres Torres stole two bases before coming home on a passed ball. Then in the fifth the Hens created another run on two singles, a sacrifice and a groundout - none of which went past the pitcher's mound.
That team speed also helps the Hens on defense, especially in the outfield as the team tracks down flies other teams might not reach and cuts down balls that might otherwise roll through the gaps for extra bases.
Toledo's bullpen also proved to be a key weapon in Louisville. While the Bats struggled to maintain leads, especially on Thursday, the Hens' bullpen locked down one of the best offenses in the league.
How important is that? Consider Wednesday night's loss. The Hens fell behind 5-0 after only two innings, but the bullpen kept the Bats in check to allow Omar Infante's two-run homer in the ninth to tie the game. The game ended up a 7-6 loss, but it felt like a win.
Franklyn German has been practically untouchable as the team's closer, and both Fernando Rodney and Matt Perisho have been capable set-up men. But also give credit to pitchers such as Tim Adkins and Eric Eckenstahler for performing well in a thankless job.
Pennant races can be fun. Watching crucial ball games has been exciting, and the Hens seem to play a crucial ball game every day. Even scoreboard-watching has turning into an exciting pastime.
POST-SEASON HONORS: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre dominated the IL's post-season all-star team, claiming five of the 12 positions as well as most valuable pitcher (Joe Roa) and manager of the year (Marc Bombard).
The Hens did not have a single player on the post-season all-star team for the first time in three seasons.
The only other teams with more than one player on the team are Ottawa, which already has been eliminated from the post-season, and Louisville. One sure playoff team, Buffalo, was shut out, while Durham had only closer Lee Gardner. The Bulls' Carl Crawford was named the league's rookie of the year.
The Bats' Gonzalez was named the IL's MVP in a tight vote, but the past few weeks have underscored his value to Louisville. Since he left the team after being traded to the New York Mets on Aug. 20 the Bats have a 2-8 record.